By Greg Mason
From The Auburn Citizen, November 24, 2014
It was business as usual for Arlene Ryan on Halloween, her 40th as a resident of Orchard Street in Auburn.
The festivities were the same. Costumed children started making their rounds around 5 p.m., trotting about the neighborhood with their guardians in tow.
At 67 years old, Arlene has seen many children come and go, much like the neighbors in her Orchard Street neighborhood.
The sentiment has never been truer now that an approximately $11 million construction project, one that saw more than 15 buildings in the neighborhood rebuilt or refurbished, was officially completed in September.
And while this Halloween was number 40 for Arlene, it was the first Halloween for an Orchard Street neighborhood after its “rebirth,” an expression used at different times in the project’s history.
The fruits of this work are mostly on Orchard Street. Coming from Genesee Street, visitors are welcomed by the large, revitalized brick building on James Street that once belonged to the namesake of the S.E. Payne Cornerstone Project in the 1800s, former congressman Sereno E. Payne.
From there, the new buildings stand as testaments to efforts not only in providing homes for those in need, but to revive a neighborhood culture that has experienced symptoms of poverty and property disinvestment over multiple decades.
It was a multimillion dollar intervention sparked in part by years of outreach by Arlene and others from the Orchard Street Neighborhood Association on behalf of their beloved community. While many believe the project is the area’s turning point, time must pass before others are swayed.
With a third-party agency now serving as landlord over many of the properties, developers and neighbors alike are hoping this presence can bring new life to Orchard Street after its descent into, as neighbors describe, real estate anarchy.
Cherry Love-Duncan credits project developers for giving her a place she could finally call home.
In June, she moved into one of the 35 housing units that were rebuilt or remodeled by Syracuse nonprofit Housing Visions Inc., one of the project’s primary developers.
Before describing her present, Cherry revisits her past. She said she has dealt with health problems, poverty — even homelessness for a three-month stretch.
Cherry lived in a neighborhood that, according to developers, has suffered years of disinvestment and absentee land ownership. Though she didn’t experience those issues directly while living on Orchard Street for more than 10 years, the indirect effects were palpable.
Orchard Street had a reputation, Cherry said — one that attracted the wrong crowds and frightened others away. She described frequent noise complaints and untended lawns covered in litter.
She remembered how rowdy, unruly crowds tended to gather in the street before being dispersed by police.
“Living in the Orchard Street area before they built these houses, for me, was kind of rough,” she said.
After suffering through a number of disputes with neighbors, Cherry eventually moved into a Genesee Street apartment near the federal post office.
In leaving her Orchard Street apartment, Cherry left a “very nice” living space a floor above her kindly property landlords. Her next apartment, she said, offered cold, uninsulated winter nights and disorderly neighbors involved in drug and alcohol use.
“In the wintertime, I only had heat in the living room,” Cherry recalled. “The bathroom, it was right there in the bedroom. I never slept in that bedroom for three years. I would bring and throw my mattress in the living room to sleep.”
She needed a lifeline.
Every day, Cherry watched crews build the area’s new homes from the ground up. When she told workers how she would love to live in one of the apartments, they referred her to a tenant application process.
When her application was accepted, Cherry was overjoyed.
“This might be (Housing) Visions’ house, but this is my home,” she said. “I’m very thankful that they picked me to live here.”
After years of dealing with struggles, much of what Cherry now deals with is finding complementary furnishings for her home.
The 68-year-old gleams as she points out the paintings that adorn her wall, each showcasing her African heritage. She doesn’t forget to mention shelves lined with family portraits, showing off her other side — her other pride.
The apartment is so delightfully her, Cherry said, that she is proud to call it home. It is a feeling she’s lacked after living for more than 10 years in the Orchard Street neighborhood.
“I love my apartment,” she exclaimed. “Other people that I have talked to that live in these apartments, they say and feel the same way I feel: That we’re blessed to be able to live in a new house.”
Cherry said developers let her choose whichever apartment she wanted to live in. Cherry decided for an upstairs apartment isolated from neighbors and, as it turns out, trick-or-treaters.
The Auburn woman wasn’t home for her first Halloween in her new apartment. She ended up not serving a single piece of candy this year.
Cherry didn’t mind. After all, she is still settling into her cloud nine.
Officials have heralded the revitalization project as the neighborhood’s turning point, but three years after settling into her own new home, Donna Lockett has her doubts.
Donna, owner of a home overhauled by Homsite Fund Inc. in Auburn, is not quite sure the massive redevelopment was the salve for Orchard Street’s maladies — especially after this past summer.
The feeling partly stems from struggles with financial restrictions and regulations on the property. From the outset, Donna’s finances were required to fall within a low to moderate income range to purchase the home, though her assets are now certainly eligible to improve.
Homeowners must also abide by a compliance period that generally continues at least 10 years before the home can be sold. In the interim, residents are free to make modifications to the home, but must annually indicate that the property is still their primary residence.
If homeowners would like to move out before the compliance period is complete, they may work with Homsite and the house would be resold. The remainder of the period would carry over to the next resident.
“These things happen,” said Crystal Purcell Cosentino, chief operations officer with Homsite Fund and Syracuse nonprofit Home HeadQuarters. “It’s certainly not a lifelong sentence to live in these properties.”
Donna could face thousands in closing sale fees if she does choose to move, but she’s considering it. Donna’s recent summer on Orchard Street was, as she described, not pleasant to say the least.
Coming from a small town in Moravia, summers on Orchard Street have been quite a contrast for Donna. In 2012, she said the area felt empty with many residents moved out prior to project construction.
The following summer was the opposite. Construction vehicles rolled loudly about the street, building the neighborhood’s new foundations.
This summer, however, saw Donna’s car broken into and decorative lights stolen from her garden. She discounts these as incidents of small-time vandalism.
It was what she said she saw around the neighborhood that scared her the most.
“I saw things going on out here,” Donna recalled before pausing, looking off at nothing in particular. “Fights, and I’ve seen kids getting abused. Public drunkenness. Screaming.
“It was scary,” she added. “I did not feel entirely safe this summer.”
Like others, Donna is hopeful for the neighborhood’s future, emphasizing her gratefulness for the collective renewal efforts.
She cited the success of a smaller scale Housing Visions project on West Lake Avenue from around the turn of the century, which saw the redevelopment of 12 buildings into affordable rental properties.
Donna, however, is not alone when saying the Orchard Street neighborhood once suffered from a lack of commitment from area tenants. The Housing Visions project has established 35 affordable rental units, albeit with stringent regulations.
Many of the buildings will become available for purchase after 15 years, but a question remains for Donna in the interim:
With Orchard Street remaining a rental community, was this project the answer?
“I’m worried that the problems that are in the neighborhood really haven’t been addressed,” she said. “I’m worried that it’s the same neighborhood with much nicer homes.”
The project will take time to develop, and Donna is willing to wait and see on the project’s merits.
As such, Donna is hopeful her past summer was only an outlier in a neighborhood’s burgeoning future.
“I’ve got to hope,” she said. She sighs. “I want to hope. I want this neighborhood to improve and families to want to move in and kids to be able to go outside and play. I want that, very badly.
“Right now, I’m more discouraged than I am hopeful, but I’m going to stay and continue to hope.”
Andrew, a school board member for the Auburn Enlarged City School District, has rented an area apartment with his family since 2008. For years, they lived across the street from a property with, Andrew surmised, about five more living units than the building was designed to hold. And the yard had no grass.
The eyesore was further complemented by noisy neighbors outside of their house, sometimes fighting. It was “a nexus of really bad energy,” Andrew described.
The residence added to the neighborhood’s overall tone that, for Andrew, was less fearful and more “obnoxious” between reports of children running about the streets apparently unsupervised to an overwhelming amount of verbal abuse incidents.
Andrew noted the hopelessness of it all. He knew residents probably could not afford to live anywhere else.
Furthermore, the severity of the neighborhood’s rough reputation is all relative, Andrew said. Auburn’s worst neighborhoods are only so within their own city lines.
Regardless, it was almost enough to warrant a change.
“There were many times where we were just like, ‘We gotta get the hell out of here,'” he said.
But whisperings of a community redevelopment project kept the Roblees around. When developers began to buy neighborhood homes in a systematic fashion, that included the house across the street.
So when Andrew took the garbage out one day around three years ago, he noticed how quiet that house across the street was — and that marked his turning point.
“That’s when I realized everybody was gone. All of those buildings were empty,” he said. “From then really until today, it’s been a completely different world.”
Now, the 34-year-old is still getting to know this new world. The Roblees have gotten to know their new neighbors; their children sometimes go as a group to play at the new Benton Street playground.
If the goal of the S.E. Payne Cornerstone Project was to change the Orchard Street area for the better, then “mission accomplished,” Andrew said. He believes neighbors are now taking a stake in the local community after seeing the work going into the neighborhood.
On the other hand, Andrew does not think the project addressed an overall issue prevalent throughout the city.
“It didn’t address poverty. It just moved poverty,” he said.
Previous Orchard Street tenants have just been displaced to a neighborhood they can afford to live in, he said. Given their economic situation, Andrew noted ownership is unlikely, which leads to a cycle of renting and remaining disenfranchised in the community.
The emergence of new citywide demographics also needs to be addressed, he added. Auburn has seen a slight rise in black and Hispanic populations over the past decade; in 2012, both were recorded to have the highest poverty rate in the county, according to Census data.
“Until the community in this city chooses to engage in changing demographics, the problem will persist and get worse,” he noted.
Still, the project was a success on the local level, Andrew said. With construction complete, the neighborhood resident doesn’t have any problems living there anymore.
“I think Auburn is changing demographically and a program like this lends itself to making people feel a part of their community.”
The immediate dividends from the project have been aesthetically pleasing, Arlene Ryan has noticed.
Now that the new homes are all up, some longtime neighbors, she said, have stepped up in their own way. For some, this might be a tidier front lawn. For others, potted plants on their porch.
“They’re willing now to invest a little bit. Even if they can’t invest a lot, they’re willing to do a little something,” Arlene said. “It’s been an incentive for others.”
The response is part of the area’s present and positive momentum, she said. Arlene noted the project will help detract from issues that have historically plagued the neighborhood and the city as a whole.
Arlene has been ecstatic with the turnaround. As the leader of the Orchard Street Neighborhood Association, she takes great pride in her area — Arlene would be the first to remind you that the area is in the backyard of the place where sound for motion pictures was invented.
Overall, she believes that the project is a great first step in returning a neighborhood to its former glory. It is a step, she said, that she hopes will lead to a better neighborhood in the future.
It is a giant leap for an area once thought by some as frightening. Threatening. Hopeless.
“It’s the big boost,” Arlene said.
Staff writer Greg Mason can be reached at (315) 282-2239 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenMason.